Almost completely forgotten today, James Anthony Froude was one of the most famous historians of the 19th century. A brilliant speaker whose lecture tours attracted huge audiences, a prolific journalist and writer whose books, like those of his friend Thomas Carlyle, sold tens of thousands of copies, he rose to become Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.
Froude's work celebrated the buccaneering hardiness of English seamen and eulogised the Elizabethan age's commercial enterprise, its pioneering individualism. His upbeat rhetoric struck a chord with audiences basking in the knowledge that maps were painted ever pinker; that with every passing decade the Empire grew bigger, broader, faster. He also produced accounts of his voyages including, in 1888, a typically forthright volume entitled The English in the West Indies, which expressed his disgust about the islands becoming "nigger warrens" and lapsing into barbarism.
The book was read with horror by a Trinidadian schoolmaster called John Jacob Thomas. He had spent most of his life in rickety classrooms trying to teach restless agricultural workers in return for little glory and less pay. He had taught himself Greek, Latin, French and Spanish. More unusually, and without linguistic training, he learned Creole and, in 1869, produced a groundbreaking book on the language. Now, 20 years later, bedridden by rheumatism, with no institutional support and precious few resources to hand, he wrote a devastating critique of the professor's scholarship. He labelled Froude a "negrophobic political hobgoblin" and accused him of methodological slackness (conversing chiefly with the Anglo-West Indian communities, from whose balcony windows he would gaze down on the sable throngs), lechery (lionising black women, while claiming black men were truculent layabouts), and gross political naivety (he ridiculed Froude's assertion that West Indian negroes enjoyed "no distinction of colour" under British rule). Thomas died shortly after Froudacity was published in 1889. It attracted scant attention and has long been forgotten. Today, it can be seen to anticipate the rise of postcolonial studies across the world. Yet Thomas's wit, his lucidity and his venom put to shame the tenured radicals who have followed in his wake. What is postcolonialism? The term has most valency within the arts, especially literature. This is unsurprising, perhaps, since English Literature as a discipline first developed neither in London nor Oxbridge but in India, where - according to Thomas Macaulay's 1835 Indian Education Minute - the use of the English language and rote-learning techniques would produce subjects "Indian in blood and in colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect". Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, academics specialising in postcolonialism rediscovered colonial authors. They also highlighted classics such as Robinson Crusoe and Heart of Darkness, which they felt misrepresented native peoples. Announcing that, at long last, the empire was "writing back", they exposed the strategies of Third World authors who, like Caliban in The Tempest, creolised standard English to use it as a weapon of insurgency: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse". Recently, however, postcolonialism has become keener on philosophical than literary questions. …